Feds take charge of Lake Christine Fire, but it likely will burn for weeks

Fire crews descend on Roaring Fork Valley as fire spreads to 5,263 acres

Federal resources are pouring into the mid-Roaring Fork Valley to take command of the battle to corral the Lake Christine Fire after local firefighters saved hundreds of homes during a “chaotic” period.

“Today was a good day. We got some resources in,” said Keith Brink, operations section chief for the Northern Rockies Incident Command team, which took control of the firefighting effort at 6 a.m. Thursday.

Those resources include one hotshot team already on the fire lines and another arriving Friday. Brink called them “the elite of the elite.”

All told, there will be between 300 and 400 federal and local firefighters battling the blaze by the weekend, according to incident commander Mike Almus.

However, officials warned a crowd of more than 200 people at a community meeting at Basalt High School on Thursday evening that the firefighting effort will continue for weeks.

“This is not a fire that’s going to be put out quickly,” said Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger of the U.S. Forest Service.

And because of that, mandatory evacuations for about 500 households won’t be lifted for an undetermined time, Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said.

Residents of the Hill District above downtown Basalt and multiple neighborhoods of the El Jebel area won’t be allowed to return home until the fire poses no threat, utilities are restored and all hazards are eliminated, he said. Law enforcement officials will enforce closures of roads and residential areas.

“We ask you to bear with us and be patient,” Van Beek said.

Once evacuation orders are lifted in Eagle County, it will be in phases, he said. People need to register with Eagle County as soon as possible to make sure they can re-enter when the all-clear signal comes.

Van Beek received a hearty cheer when he assured Latinos in the audience or watching live feeds that they can go without fear to evacuation centers at the high schools in Basalt and Carbondale. There are no immigration officials present, he said.

As of 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the fire had charred 5,263 acres on private, state and federal lands between Basalt and El Jebel and the hillsides above. It was considered uncontained. The fire is expected to continue running upslope on Basalt Mountain, though Brink assured the crowd that heavy equipment had scrapped fire breaks on the northwest and northern end of the fire near Spring Park Reservoir in Missouri Heights. An edge was secured in the El Jebel area and on the eastern flank above downtown Basalt.

Helicopters made multiple water drops and airplanes dropped retardant repeatedly Thursday, just as they had Wednesday. A thick, orange line of retardant ringed the hillside above downtown Basalt.

Conditions in the midvalley were like Jekyll and Hyde on Wednesday and Thursday. The fire topped a ridge in the El Jebel area Wednesday shortly after 9 p.m. and forced a mandatory evacuation of El Jebel Mobile Home Park at 10 p.m. Firefighters from Basalt were joined by departments throughout the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys in an intense battle to saves homes. The effort continued until about 3 a.m. Thursday.

“They worked very diligently, worked very hard and probably saved several hundred homes that would have been impacted from the fire,” said Roger Staats, deputy incident commander.

El Jebel resembled a Civil War battlefield Thursday morning. Smoke obscured the sky and views of the hillsides and choked anyone who ventured outside. As the smoke slowly cleared as a gentle breeze flowed from the south, midvalley residents and commuters on Highway 82 got a glimpse of scalded hillsides and smoldering vegetation.

While the fire was still growing Thursday, it didn’t seem as menacing based on the demeanor of people at the community meeting. Firefighters hope to gain the upper hand Friday, which is the anniversary of when 14 federal firefighters died in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain fire west of Glenwood Springs in 1994. Gov. John Hickenlooper is scheduled to visit the midvalley and command center Friday morning.

Brink said there is an “aggressive team” of firefighters in place to deal with the Lake Christine Fire.

“We’ve got a good plan in place and we hope to proceed with that,” he said.